The Merriam Webster 2023 word of the year is authentic. Along with reflecting on my birthday the end of year strangely turns into a time for reflection. I reflected quite intentionally back in 2011 and then recently in 2022 and the last is notable because of this introspection:

And finally, I’m grateful to be my authentic self.

The post talks about self-monitoring and various other levels of discomfort with respect to being what (one might consider) a true, authentic self. It’s very appropriate that now, a year later, this is the word of the year. It’s a good choice. I’m getting better at it I think. Shall we reflect a bit, for this end of 2023? I think so! This post will be part talking about authenticity, and part reflection on what I learned about myself this year.

What does authentic mean?

I’d like to dig more into what I believe authentic to be, because I think it’s a more rare quality than we think, and if we might consider it a mindset that can be learned, I would argue more should strive for it. Let’s begin.

The components of authenticity

For me, an authentic person is self aware, emotionally mature, and highly resistant to social pressure. I’d like to talk about these components separately. These are my own perceptions and definitions, so you are free to disagree.

Emotional maturity

Emotional maturity is about awareness and choice. It is not about control and suppression. The two can be confused because from an outside perspective, you often can’t tell the difference. The person seems to be in control of how they react - are they suppressing something that will explode later (at someone else, or themself) or are they processing the emotions, understanding them, and channeling the understanding in some other way? So how do you know? Well, firstly - let’s consider what we might consider the opposite of emotional maturity - something that looks like emotional immaturity, or someone that is uninhibited and free spirited. Are they emotionally immature?

Not necessarily. Again, you can’t tell often at face value. Emotional maturity is being able to identify, understand, and respond to one’s emotions. When emotional maturity is about awareness and choice, an emotionally mature person can choose lack of inhibition. Said person can choose to enter an interaction and bring down their level of formality and self-monitoring and allow for expression of joy or playfulness. This person can still be aware of their current emotions and changes of state, and those with empathy can introspect about the states of others. They are highly aware of nuances of tone, and expression. I speak this perspective from personal experience, because I do this all the time, and in fact, regularly in my daily interactions with colleagues, friends or family. I choose to be around people, or work on things, that give me joy, and then it’s easy to allow it to flow out of me. I enjoy bringing this joy and light-heartedness to my interactions with others, and selfishly it makes me feel good too. That is a very explicit choice, and why when I encounter people and things that are more toxic, I tend to cut them out. I just don’t want to tolerate and absorb that. This doesn’t mean that every person that is light-hearted and happy is emotionally mature, because indeed it is possible to have a more base-level, joyful reaction to something without explicitly choosing that. The problem with just reacting, however, is that you can’t control it, and the joy can be rare or far in between. Thus, while often joy is stateful and temporary (and not a controlled thing), it’s not always the case. It is a mistake to assume globally that someone that is light-hearted and smiling is somehow naive or does not have emotional depth.

So again, how do you tell? My strategy is simple. I get to know someone, and then I ask them from time to time when I see they have had and reacted to an experience. An emotionally mature person (that is also able to be vulnerable) will be able to very logically walk through what happened, how they felt, how they analyzed or thought about it, and what they decided or learned from it. A person that doesn’t have this level of awareness might immediately put blame for the experience on someone else, they might get defensive, very candidly say that they don’t know how they felt, or come up with a reason that (maybe to them) justifies it, like “Oh, I was just tired” or “I was busy.” Actually, it could be the case that they were just tired or busy. Or it could be the case they don’t want to talk to you specifically (that’s hard to tell). But if every time you see (someone you consider a close) friend go through something challenging that is their response? They likely aren’t emotionally aware. They haven’t developed the process of experiencing something, reflecting, understanding, and growing from it.

Reflection

I think when bad (or good) things happen to us, we go through a process of living the experience, ruminating about it, and then reflection. Specifically the reflection is a big part of emotional maturity, because it means we grow from experience instead of allowing it to happen again or haunt us. The rumination is typically a response when we are troubled by something, and our brain is stuck in a loop processing the events trying to come up with takeaways to learn from. I can also speak from experiences this year. I probably had the best year of my life for many reasons. We had several large conferences and I was able to meet colleagues for the first time, of course masked and outside to be safe in the context of a pandemic. I found myself in this exact sequence of events - experience, followed by emotion, rumination, and reflection. I first felt a high of happiness after meeting everyone. These were people that I admired and cared about, and I set my expectations high to want them to have similar valuation of me. It was a taste of what it could be like to spend time with friends, and yes, I had forgotten. But it was quickly followed by sadness, and at first I didn’t know why. As I ruminated, what kept coming up was the realization of the reality of the pandemic, and that my life was structured in a way that I would maybe see these people once every 3-4 years. I also had to recognize that most people are better than myself at making friends, and don’t see their work colleagues as close friends. As much as I might want to talk to people after the work days are over, they are very content (and prefer) to turn off the communication channels and spend time with actual friends and family.

This led to many days of rumination, and quite a bit of sadness. It brought back what has haunted me for a lot of my life, and that is that I am not good at making friends outside of functional contexts. My best friends have been in the context of classes, running teams, and then labs and work. I have not been good at maintaining those friendships when the contexts end. I’m not even particularly good at keeping in touch with my own family. It’s not that I don’t want that connection with people, but I have this perception that I bother them, and I don’t know how to ask for their time with that fear. I used to have a legitimate fear of talking on the phone when I was younger, and I still experience that. Sometimes I glance at my phone, and wonder what kind of thought process goes through someone’s head when they decide to call someone. If I talked to them once before, how do I tell them I enjoyed that, and want to talk to them again, and without bothering them? I feel like a part of my brain is missing when I constantly struggle with these questions (and then do nothing).

But it’s not that I want to talk to anyone about anything, all willy nilly. I have a hard time connecting with others outside of my very niche, technical interests. I’m ashamed to admit that I get bored in most social settings. I get bored talking about what (over the course of my life) I find is typical to talk about. I would much rather be immersed in reading or watching something interesting, and by myself, than engaging in small talk. When I spent time with my closest friend (for 8 years now) we can exist in the same space in silence, without feeling self-conscious or any requirement to socialize, doing our own thing. That’s a hard thing to find with people, because (for the most part) I might feel self-conscious. But the need to be alone is strong for an introvert, and for me it also goes back to that “being surrounded by people but feeling entirely alone” thing. That was definitely me for most of college, and I haven’t thought about it for a long time because I don’t have to consider many social situations as a remote worker.

To go back to meeting my friends earlier this year, the joyful high quickly transitioned to sadness. During rumination I found myself processing every possible idea and future, and trying to uncover the core of what was bothering me. Could it be fixed if I were closer to people I worked with that shared my niche interests? I explored ideas of uprooting my life to be closer to them, but ultimately turned down that idea because I love where I live now. I didn’t really want to go back to a state that didn’t have snow. I also realized how tiny my workplace is, and the actual pool of people that were around my age and likely to want to spend time with me would be very small. But I do wish (in non-pandemic times) I could have a place to go. A result of early rumination is that I decided that I didn’t want to be a remote employee forever, or minimally, that I should have the choice to go in and interact with people. But does that mean I should leave my current job and find one with an office closer to where I want to be? This is something I considered, but I’m not quite ready to, because I love my current work, colleagues, and there wouldn’t be a point with the pandemic anyway. But I do see this being desired at some point in the future, TBD. I decided to have the perspective that this change will be something to look forward to - going in to a physical place, possibly having an office and turning on music to dance, stopping by the offices of my friends to see what they are working on and joke around, going for runs and chatting happily, leaving little snacks and holiday decorations in common rooms, drawing ideas on the whiteboard… these are things I miss terribly. But I wouldn’t do them during a pandemic anyway. But someday again I’d like to. But here is the golden nugget of insight.

The higher level realization that I had is that, despite my introverted tendency and very specific preferences for conversation or interaction, I need people.

I don’t think I needed them as much when I was younger, because of the trauma I was going through it was easier to be on my own. As dumb as it sounds, I’ve never acknowledged this before. To tie this together with the initial discussion about having an experience, ruminating, and reflecting, this was the main point of my learning. It was a simple, yet powerful insight. I immediately put into action several small changes that allowed me to better connect with people that I already cared about. I’m very routine-oriented, so I added steps in my routine that would ensure that I called my parents, and at least a few times a week. I had to come to the acceptance that my work colleagues, as much as I wanted them to want me for a close friend, that desire was out of scope. It wasn’t even fair, because they typically didn’t have a choice to interact with me. And actually, I could focus on how grateful I was that we had so much fun during the work week - not everyone has that. But that didn’t mean that it would be impossible to make friends through my working networks. I had to bubble up some confidence and look beyond my self-perception of being annoying, and decide that there are people out there that would really want to be my good friend. They might want to talk to me on chat over the weekend, or even call me on the phone. Maybe I haven’t found them quite yet, but I believe they are out there. The best way for me to find these people? I think it comes down to continuing to engage (and extending my scope of reach) when it comes to work communities. Every time I join a working group or meet new collaborators, I feel like I’m making new friends. And I love that. I can test the waters with pinging them on the weekend, or seeing if they would ever visit, and one day, someone will engage and want to do that again. Some day I will have good friends that don’t find me annoying, and want to talk to me outside of the scope of when they have to. This is what I choose to believe.

All of the above gave me peace. I forgave myself for the qualities that make me different. I forgave myself for having a hard time making friends. I decided that if specific work colleagues don’t want to be good friends with me, that does not implicate something wrong with me, or something wrong that I did, nor any fault on their part. Work is work sometimes, and that’s that. Instead of drowning in sadness for what I perceive to be missing, I instead focus on what I was looking forward to in the future, and the current joy that I get from (what I now can call) my work friends. Do I still feel little bits of sadness? On weekends I immerse in work, and typically stay in a happy flow state until Monday when I’m excited to see everyone again. But sometimes on longer weekends it does feel a bit lonely. But then I quickly revert to the lessons that I learned above, and remind myself of all the good I am grateful for. This entire process, when you do it many times (and have grow from past experiences) make you resilient. When something hard hits again, it hits less hard. And actually, you get hit by things that otherwise would be fairly painful, you acknowledge it, understand it, and then let it go. I hope this all makes sense.

Control

Now that we’ve talked about reflection, let’s talk about control. In the above story, very notably a large part of rumination is relinquishing some control. When ruminating we have to allow ourselves to feel, and fully. For me (and for this specific story) it meant thinking through things multiple times, and finding myself crying a lot. For me, that’s how I released the emotion that was built up, and allowed my logical mind to slowly make sense of it all. I find that when I try to suppress that, it mostly just hurts, somewhere in my chest, and I can’t fully process.

Now, I haven’t read studies on this, but I find that emotional maturity (outside of rumination) comes with a fine tuned sense of control. I don’t mean control as in bottling something up vs. not, but rather that I am able to choose a mindset and level of expression. If something anxiety provoking happens around me, I choose to receive it in a way that allows me to think about it more calmly. If I try something a million times and it doesn’t work? I have gotten so good at focusing on enjoying the work that the idea of frustration or failure doesn’t even cross my mind. I often joke about table flipping when programming (and I find the visual imagery of that very funny), but an actual feeling of terrible frustration happens to me in only rare circumstances, and actually with a particular piece of software that I won’t name now (that has given me so much anguish over the years I absolutely abhor it). That’s a similar thing, though, because I’ve chosen to allow that frustration to come through to allow myself to avoid using it. 😆️

Thus, I would tend to say that an emotionally mature person is keenly aware and in control of their emotions. Internally, they are not bottling things up or ignoring them, but they are choosing how to perceive them, and the degree to which to express them. For example, if I’m devastated and in a public space, I know that it will be best for me to find a private space to better allow for external expression. It doesn’t mean that I am avoiding feeling the emotion, but rather strategic about when and how I allow it to come out.

I also want to reflect that I’ve come to this current perspective about control because I started as someome that bottled things up. I learned to feel something, anything really, and shove it deep down. If I was sad or angry? You keep that to yourself. If I was sky-high level excited about something? You needed to control that too. It became so confusing that (if you knew me in sixth grade, for example) I was so lost about my own self-expression that I mostly kept quiet. What do you do when you aren’t sure what is too much, in any direction? You choose silence. For most of that year in middle school I did well in school, answered questions in class, but did not attempt to express or understand any portion of my personality. That was bad, because it led to a nerd reputation that stuck with me, even after I started running and opening up socially in later years. But even by the end of high school when I was starting to grow into myself (and life felt very good) I still primarily used suppression as my means of emotional control. I had an intensity inside of me that I didn’t understand, and if I wasn’t excelling at something or pounding it into the ground running, I was shoving it somewhere deep in my chest and hoping it went away. And I still see this in my immediate family. I don’t think as a family we learned that it was OK to express imperfection or emotion, nor did we learn how to ask or give emotional support. I suspect this is more common than it should be, but it’s largely out of my control. What can I do? I can practice being authentic, and set an example. I can be candid, and vulnerable. I can take everything that I learned and try to live my best life from here on out. To summarize this point, control comes down to awareness and choice, and not suppression.

The Social Facade

Some people say that all of life is an act. We act differently with our family members than we do our work colleagues, and differently with out friends than our family. I’m going to agree with that, but also say that a part of being authentic is having lower dimensionality to this perspective of personalities. I find that (often to my own detriment) I have a hard time being very different in the different contexts. I find very quickly that I’m acting almost the same, whether I’m with family or friends or colleagues. For me this means talking comfortably, making bad jokes, and (often) talking too much. If I’m uncomfortable in a situation I don’t change my personality, but I just become a little more quiet. I’m the same me, just less of it, if that makes sense. The exception is with cursing. I enjoy the occasional F-bombs and dark humor with family and if I slip with a friend. But I find this consistency of personality is important to me, because I don’t want people to feel like they don’t know the real me. I find the idea troubling that people walk around presenting (what I consider) faux versions of themselves. If you are a terrible, mean person? That’s actually OK, but don’t deceive people that you aren’t. If you dislike me? That’s also OK, I’d much rather know that than be under the impression that you like me. I often look across the people that I know, and wonder how many of them present with a truthful front, and how many are completely different people under their masks. I am going to say here that to be authentic, you should aim for the first. It’s better (I think for mental health) to have a self-image that aligns with how others perceive you. And if you truly don’t like something about yourself (or others might perceive it poorly, and this bothers you enough to hide it) why not try changing? As a side note, I think change is very possible. When I identify a personality trait or something that I do that I don’t like? I make a plan to change it. I practice it. I try on a new behavior, repeat it, and after enough times it becomes a part of me. You can try that too.

Mental Toughness

A lot of what I’ve described above for authenticity - namely being able to introspect, and decide to make changes, often means acting in ways that are either hard (because they are not routine) or hard because they “go against the grain.” Thus, I think a lot of being an authentic person comes down to mental toughness. Mental toughness is one of those things that is hard to define, but easy to give examples for. It is recognizing something in yourself that you don’t like, admitting to it, and deciding to change. It is then going against your years or lifetime of previous behavior and doing something different. That might be a behavior like how you interact with people, but it also could be an exercise routine. Mental toughness is deciding to think about something complex, and form your own thoughts and opinions, despite what the hive mind is telling you. It is committing to do something (setting a goal, or even a small task for a weekend) and then doing it. It is setting a schedule or routine for yourself and following it. It is deciding to disagree with someone, or even maintain a non-conformist opinion or set of behaviors. It is also changing your mind when presented with information that shows you should.

While I could give examples of physical feats or technical tasks that demonstrate this well, I think the best example as of recent, and one that is a good example of endurance, is the current pandemic. My ability to create a set of standards and protocol for myself, define sources of information that I trust, and then consistently stick to them despite public opinion and social pressure, has been the ultimate test. Yes, I’ve often felt like the “one of these things that is not like the other” for not thinking that it’s OK to throw away precautions and pretend that it’s over. I’ve endured plenty of sarcastic comments on the bike path about my mask from people of all ages. But I see no compelling scientific evidence that would lead me to change my decided protocol that now dates back almost 4 years. I’m only seeing evidence now that show my decisions have been spot on, when long term health is the priority and not a spur of the moment enjoyment of a social event. I think that might be another factor with mental toughness - delayed discounting. In layman’s terms, it’s how good you are at evaluating an award or payoff that might be far in the future. Or the opposite of that is evaluating a possible future that might be quite terrible as compared to a present that doesn’t seem so bad. I think the bad life (health) experiences from my 20s tell me that is something to be avoided at all costs. I also think if people get what they perceive to be a mild cold, they can’t imagine that same thing might wreak havoc when you get it multiple times, and that some terrible thing might take years to manifest. But I don’t want to talk about COVID again, because I think people are mostly set in their ways. I see a lot of people in denial, or (I suspect) feeling ashamed. It’s really quite scary, and I wish that people in power (public health, officials in government) had been placing the health of people first and not the economy. Anyway.

But to go back to mental toughness, it was actually this observation that got me thinking about these ideas in the first place. Why is it that I can look around, and see so many people that I deem intelligent, and thoughtful, but they are making different decisions than me? Assuming we don’t yet know who is right or wrong (I do believe based on studies coming out that my thoughts about this entire thing are trending to be more correct, but let’s be agnostic for a second). What is their thought process? What information do they have (or are they missing information and don’t seek it out)? What are the core factors that lead them to make very different decisions than me, when (at least I perceive) I am similar to them in many ways? Are there others like myself, and where the heck are they? I would like to think that there is a strong cohort of people that make decisions based on careful, critical thinking, and not wishful thinking or simply lack of it. I don’t see a good reason to be non-conformist “just for funsies” or for the sole sake of going against the grain, but I do think when backed by logic and reason, it can be the right thing. I definitely think authentic people are more likely to hold opinions and behaviors that are of this nature.

Social Pressure

This leads to the next component that I think is important to be authentic. You have to be somewhat resistant to social pressure. You have to a have some ability to not be agreeable, say no when it’s warranted, and even to people in authority. Of course you need mental toughness for this. And you need to be someone that, again, is thoughtful enough to think through a situation and decide if you want to lean the same way as the hive mind. I am terrified to think that there is a large portion of our society that doesn’t think things through fully. When they don’t understand something, they don’t seek out to learn about it. They don’t seek out information or knowledge, but rather just consume mindless internet things. Don’t get me wrong, I love this place, the internet. But it has its own share of propaganda, and click bait articles that I find friends and family just mindlessly re-post without (what seems like) a second of thought. It’s like the common behavior is to see a headline that the person thinks says something about their personality (politics are a good example) and then just quickly re-post to assert that. And then others react quickly to it, and often your network is composed of people like yourself so it’s actually one massive jerk circle. I like to think (at least) that I am more a producer of thought than a consumer of someone else’s mindless re-posts. But I think about this a lot. What personality traits (beyond maybe being thoughtful and tough-minded) make someone resistant to social pressure? What makes someone thoughtful? Is that learned or innate, or something else? How important is curiosity? I think that authentic people have an easier time thinking for themselves, and not just giving in to social pressure because “there is no other way.”

Summary

In summary, authenticity manifests from a combination of mental toughness, emotional maturity and control, and an ability to reflect and grow from experiences. It results in a person that is in tune with their needs, emotional and otherwise, chooses their responses as opposed to existing as observers of their own behavior, and that is resilient to face new challenges. I can assert that understanding my own thinking and emotional processes has allowed me to grow into a better person, and (over time) to be more in touch with my own needs and have a firmer control on living a meaningful life. I can choose to have a positive perspective on many things, find joy in the trivial, and then share that. And it really does build up like a snow ball ☃️. Even when I am tired, or possibly worked too much, I find myself smiling and focusing on how good a day I had. I find myself stopping working because I absolutely have to dance. I think a lot of this joy has come from choice, and choosing to understand my needs (and meet them) and then react to things positively. I am turning into someone that I am proud of. I can also assert that there is no such thing as “too old” to decide you want to be more introspective, or pursue learning new ideas about the world or yourself. I hope this post has been insightful, or minimally, has caused you to think about something for yourself. On that note, happy (almost) end of 2023! It was absolutely fabulous. 🏎️




Suggested Citation:
Sochat, Vanessa. "Authentic." @vsoch (blog), 16 Dec 2023, https://vsoch.github.io/2023/authentic/ (accessed 04 Feb 24).